Tips to help you settle into one of Europe’s hippest capitals, including how to find a rental property, renting conditions, and where to live in Berlin.
If you’re planning a move to Berlin, you’ll find that few other European cities have quite so much variety as Germany’s hip capital. As you ride the S-Bahn, the elevated train tracks will whisk you from old-world town houses to Soviet-era apartment blocks. One glance takes in modern skyscrapers, and the next a quiet leafy street that seems hardly changed in a hundred years, before bursting upon bright murals in an arty quarter.
Compared to cities like Paris, London, New York or Tokyo, Berlin is a haven of affordable housing, open green spaces and quiet suburbs close to the city center. It’s both walkable and easy to cycle, so owning a car is a matter of choice, not necessity. Moreover, the city’s history is still visible on its streets, but it is not mired in the past. After a turbulent 20th century, Berlin has reinvented itself as an exciting, innovative, modern capital and is an appealing destination for students, entrepreneurs and expats from around the world. In 2013, the city welcomed 50,000 new residents, swelling its numbers to around 3.5 million people.
Renting a flat in Berlin
From student squats to mansions, Berlin has something for everyone. As neighborhoods can vary from street to street, it’s a good idea to explore the areas you’re considering on foot. Few neighborhoods are unsafe, but some are significantly more noisy – vibrant if you prefer – with late night clubs staying open until dawn, when businesses roll up their shutters to start the day. We offer a guide to central Berlin neighborhoods, as well as Berlin’s outlying surburban areas, to help you decide where to live in Berlin.
With a high demand for property, finding a place can be challenging. Once the lease is signed, however, German law favors the tenant so your worries are largely over. You can read more about German rental conditions and tenants’ rights in our guide to renting in Germany.
If you’re planning to stay three years or more, you might consider buying a property in Germany. There are no restrictions for expats purchasing property, making it an attractive investment for many long-term expats – ie. long enough to defray the purchase costs. You can read more in Expatica’s guide to buying a home in Germany.
Berlin’s rental prices and annual increases
Expect to pay around EUR 8 per sqm, or more for luxurious properties, small properties and apartments in particularly desirable areas. House prices have risen dramatically in Germany in the last 10 years, with a knock-on effect on rents. Rents have increased by over 28 percent since 2007, with properties in some desirable areas increasing by up to 10 percent per year. This is partly due to the German housing market being seen as a particularly sound investment in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and partly due to an influx of new residents. Popular expat and arty districts, such as Prenzlauer Berg, are particularly hit. Locals are even campaigning against the increases, partly on the basis that the city is losing its artists and musicians.
On the bright side, it’s difficult for a landlord to increase the rent significantly while a tenant is in situ, so once you’ve found a place you should be secure. Berlin has strict regulations about rental increases: they should not happen more than once per year, and not total more than 20 percent in 3 years. Unscrupulous landlords have attempted to force out renters in order to increase the rent, provoking a strong backlash from local activists. In a few cases, however, renters have benefited by being paid to leave.
The property description should indicate whether the rent includes any utilities. If it doesn’t, it’s a ‘cold rent’ (Kaltmiete). Conversely a ‘warm rent’ (Warmmiete) will include heating bills, and may include other costs. Details should be laid out in the tenancy agreement. Find out about connecting the internet and telephone, and licences for German television and radio.
Fees and the deposit
A deposit (Kaution) equal to three months’ rent is standard. The sum should not be greater than three months’ rent, and must be kept in an escrow account, a type of savings account that is separate from the landlord’s or estate agent’s business accounts. You may need to open a German bank account.
Types of rental properties and contracts in Berlin
Rental contracts: Short or long term?
Most leases are unlimited or have a two-year initial contract before becoming unlimited. This means there are no contract amendment or renewal periods. A tenant may therefore stay as long as they choose, giving three months’ notice when they quit.
To remove a tenant, the landlord must either serve an eviction notice (by going through the courts) or give three months’ notice. Tenants have the right to dispute being given notice, and landlords usually only hold sway in a very particular set of circumstances. These include essential repairs and non-payment of rent. If you feel you’re being forced out by a landlord, find your local Mieterverbände (tenant’s association) and ask for advice.
Short-term leases (under a year) are typically covered by serviced apartments, sub-lets and holiday homes. If you’re looking for a short, fixed-term lease, expect to pay a higher rent. The standard three-month notice for terminating a contract still applies, although some short-term contracts may not allow any contract breaks for an initial period (typically 6–24 months) which would mean that the tenant would have to wait those months out before giving notice. They may be entitled to leave at the end of the specified renting period, or three months’ after giving notice. You should check your contract for details.
Most furnished properties are holiday lets, typically available for the short to medium term (weeks or perhaps a few months). The standard in Berlin is for a property to be let completely empty, so finding a pleasantly furnished property in a nice area can be difficult. In many cases, it’s easier and cheaper to pick a holiday home for a few weeks, then find and furnish a more permanent place.
Properties are typically let entirely empty, often without carpets, light fittings or white goods (such as a fridge, stove or washing machine). The flipside to this is that tenants are allowed more leeway in decoration: painting is usually accepted, although the flat must be returned in white or neutral colors.
Many students find their own housing through private landlords, and a few through their college or university. Over 9,000 students live in accommodation provided, maintained and organised by the city itself. The organisation, Studentwerk (site in German and Mandarin) operates housing across the city, mostly in dormitory-style blocks.
Choosing an apartment or house?
Berlin has a real mix of housing types. The center is primarily apartments, both converted town houses, 100-year-old apartment blocks and modern skyrise complexes. Farther out, you’ll find single-family homes and the odd mansion. Before you get as far as Potsdam, you can be out in the forest with no neighbors in sight. Building quality varies enormously, from beautiful historic homes through shabby Soviet-era prefabs to new builds with all the mod cons.
How to find accommodation in Berlin
Most Berliners (85 percent) rent their home, and as a result there is a constant supply of apartments and houses coming up for rent. The best deals are to be found in buildings where the landlord has owned the property for a significant period, and the worst deals will come from profit-hungry land investors. Renting directly from a landlord may improve your rate, but it’s important to be cautious, particularly if you don’t speak German fluently or are contacting people online.
Flat shares (Wohngemeinschaft) are common, and sub-letting happens regularly. Remember though: if your name isn’t on the tenancy agreement, you forfeit many of your rights as a tenant.
Whether you’re sharing or a sole tenant, expect to fill in a detailed application form, and provide supporting evidence of your status. You will usually need to include:
- your German credit report;
- copies of photo ID and any residence permits or visas;
- proof of income;
- a certificate from your previous landlord indicating you have no outstanding rent due (Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung).
If you’re a new arrival, consider including a letter of recommendation from your employer and explain why you don’t have any missing documents.
Using an estate agent
For newcomers to the city, an estate agent (Makler) can be an excellent investment but their rates are high: three months’ rent plus VAT is standard. Agents usually represent properties rather than renters, so you may have to pay their costs even if you find an apartment through a friend or an advert. Ads online are sometimes listed as being provisionsfreie, which means ‘without agent’s fees’.
Online property portals:
- www.booking.com (43 languages)
- www.immobilienscout24.de (German only)
- www.immowelt.de (German only)
- www.wohnungsboerse.net (German only)
- www.immobilo.de (German only)
- Nestpick – apartments in Berlin
- White Apartments – properties in Berlin
Shared housing and student properties:
- www.studenten-wg.de (German only)
- www.studentenwerk-berlin.de (English, German, Mandarin)
Short-term, furnished and holiday lets:
- www.booking.com (43 languages)
- www.housetrip.com (English)
- www.ferienwohnung-zimmer-berlin.de (German)
- www.oh-berlin.com (English, German and four more)
- www.airbnb.com (20+ languages)
- SMARTments – (English and German)
- Tempoflat.de is an online portal that specializes in commission-free, furnished lodgings for short- and mid-term rental (one month to two years).
Where to live in Berlin
Berlin is divided into 12 official districts, most made up from several neighborhoods. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the division between the city has been eroded by new-builds and standardized services. Today, you’ll find pleasant and exciting places to live on both sides of the old line. Close to the center, Prenzlauer Berg is often called the heart of the city. Once home to artists and student squats, rents are on the rise in this charming and characterful neighborhood.
The central areas are popular with families, too, as many of the streets are very walkable and there are plenty of parks. Three international schools rub shoulders with the government buildings in Mitte. There are dozens of schools with an international focus and student body, so expat families are more scattered than in some cities. Charlottenburg, a pleasant leafy neighborhood in the west, is an exception: it has been a home-away-from-home for expat Brits since World War II.
With so much new development going on, the character of a neighborhood can change from street to street and year to year. While some families have lived in the same apartment for 50 years, students and artists tend to be much more mobile, drifting on to the next big thing. Whatever your style and situation, you’re sure to find somewhere that suits you in this diverse and evolving city.
Read more in our guide on where to live in Berlin.
Living in Berlin’s suburbs
Looking beyond the city center, the property market becomes less frantic and more affordable. Thanks to efficient public transport networks and relatively low traffic density for a major urban area, commuting from 20–50km away is entirely practical. Remember that most suburbs are in former East Germany, so in some cases housing quality can be poor, particularly for low cost accommodation built between 1950–1990.
Read a detailed guide on where to live in Berlin’s outlying areas.